This article shows how Christians can observe and learn from patterns of God’s work throughout history. This article looks at themes of God's judgment and blessing of His church and unbelievers.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 2001. 5 pages.

Biblical Patterns of Divine Working and Their Relevance to Today’s Church

Many of our actions and plans flow from an anticipation of what will happen in the future. We would be unlikely to buy or sell or shares a house without some expectations of what the future will bring. Such expec­tations are not as detailed and formal as a theory of history, but they often contain hunches about the way events seem to be moving.

The same applies to the church. Different church strategies imply a different understanding of history. Man-centred church-growth strategies have as a basis a theory of history that says that direct divine action is not a significant factor in present history. Charismatic church plans often assume that this age is the particular age of the Spirit. Those who want to withdraw into a church out of contact with the world often see this age as an un­relieved period of moral and spiritual decline.

Once we become aware that we are influenced by anticipations of the future, we then ask whether we can have any sure expectations. Is the future a total mystery? The warning of Ecclesiastes becomes pertinent: 'If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?' (8:7). Something we have to wrestle with as we consider this question is the degree to which we may understand the future, or whether the future – at least the nearer future – remains a complete mystery to us.

Learning from History?🔗

Scripture expects the people of God to learn from history and to make the right judgements on that basis. The leaders of Israel appeal to the tribes settled in Jordan to learn about God's judgements from history to see that their present actions must bring a similar judgement (Josh. 22:17-18). Israel is exhorted to remember the experience in the wilderness and the lessons God taught through it (Deut. 8). The men of Issachar are commended because they understand the times (1 Chron. 12:32). Christ criticizes those who have learned by experience to know what the future weather will be but not the future of God's kingdom (Matt. 16:3). Certainly in some cases, knowledge of the past may have come through Scripture rather than ex­perience. Nevertheless, a believer is expected to learn from past events. Hence the question: are there patterns in God's working which offer in­struction for today?

At the simplest level, the answer is obvious that there are. The Israelite elders took the lesson from Baal-Peor (Josh. 22:17-18) that God punishes sin. When we probe more deeply, it becomes more complex. Psalm 78 turns glorying in the human past on its head: it holds up the exploits of the soldiers of Israel as examples of what not to do. They were examples of cowardice and failure. The consequence of unfaithfulness is shown in God's punish­ment (verses 59-64). So far we see the pattern: sin leads to punishment.

However, in the next verse God rises up like a hero who awakes refreshed by wine and suddenly bursts forth on his enemies. This vivid simile shows God's freedom of action, or, in a right sense, the unpredictability of God. He acts in ways we would not anticipate. After the apostasy of the period of the judges, who could have imagined the success and glory of the Davidic kingdom? It does not go against the character of God; it is quite in con­formity with God's love and faithfulness to his people. But it does not fit any pattern that man might easily understand or predict.

A second example of unpredictability is shown in the reign of Jeroboam, son of Joash (2 Kings 14:23-27). At that time sin was followed by blessing and success because of God's love for his people. We cannot even predict an iron law connecting sin and failure. Once again, it is not out of character for God, but it throws into doubt our attempt to base expectations on past history.

To sum up: Scripture encourages us to learn from history, but it also shows that God's love for his people makes any simple prediction very difficult. We can see that sin leads to judgement; and if the judgement is slow in coming, we can see in that the love of God for his people. How do we move from the complexity introduced by God's unexpected compassion to a reasonable expectation of the future? Is there more to be learned?

Patterns from History🔗

A good place to begin further exploration is 1 Peter 4:1-19, especially verses 17 and 18, because the pattern of history reflected here is taught through­out Scripture. First the people of God are judged. Then comes judgement upon those whom God has used to judge his people. Notice this pattern in Jeremiah 25:1-14 and 27:6-7. I would particularly note that in 27:7 the 'time of his own land' means the time for judgement.

A similar pattern is seen in the case of the Assyrian empire (Isa. 10:5-19). First Assyria is the rod in the hand of God; and then, in turn, it is judged. That pattern is carried into the New Testament era in the judgement on Jerusalem (Luke 21:24): Jerusalem will be subdued 'until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled'. Many interpreters read 'times' to mean 'turn' and see here a reversion to a turn for Jewish control of Jerusalem. In terms of the pattern we see elsewhere in Scripture, the 'times of the Gentiles' must be the time for them to receive judgement. As they have been used to judge Jerusalem, so they in turn will be judged. Indeed, Rome and her allies were judged in turn by God.

Of course, other passages of Scripture show the same pattern without consciously drawing our attention to it. The period of the judges is an obvious case. God judged his people through foreign oppressors but then judged the oppressors in turn.

Believers have to pass through what is called a 'testing' (1 Pet 1:6-9; 4:12). The oppression of the church is both judgement and test. This links again into a particular theme. The period where God's blessing seems to be going to the Gentiles, to those thought to be outside the promise, is a trial of faith. That is one of the great themes of Genesis, with its constant contrast between the chosen and the non-chosen lines: for example, the line of Cain, with its discoveries and cultural achievements, over against the line of Seth with its piety; Ishmael with twelve sons against Isaac's two; Esau established in his own land with kings before there was any king over Israel.

We see it elsewhere as well. When famine forced the family of Elimelech to leave Bethlehem, where could they find food? In Moab. If a foreigner could live better in Moab than in his native Judah, then Moab was experiencing blessing denied to Judah (Ruth 1:1-6). The power given to Hazael to secure brutal victory over Israel was God's blessing to him and judgement on Israel (1 Kings 19:15-18, 2 Kings 8:7-13; 10:32-33). The book of Habakkuk shows another trial of faith generated by God's blessing going to the godless while the people of God are judged and refined.

There is another angle, however, from which we should view this pattern of judgement on Israel but blessing on her oppressors. For some Gentiles, that becomes the means not of the material blessing of prosperity and power, but of spiritual blessing. It is clear that there is a connection between Ahab's marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians, and Ahab's worship of Baal (1 Kings 16:31). Yet it is to a widow of Zarephath, which belonged to Sidon (17:9), that Elijah was sent with consequent blessings, both material and spiritual. Similarly, Aram oppressed Israel and was used as God's rod of judgement, as evidenced by the young girl taken into slavery (2 Kings 5:1-2). Yet, healing and also the spiritual blessing of the demonstration of divine power went to Naaman. Those two examples, with their implication that the Jews had no special rights to divine blessing, infuriated the Jews in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4).

This is not to say that whenever Israel is judged while foreigners are blessed, the oppressing group is being singled out for blessing. It can be simply the contrast of the covenant member and the non-covenant member. Note Isaiah 56:3-5, which is against the background of the Babylonians and Assyrians being used to judge Judah. Notice the example of the outworking of this in the specific instance of Ebed-melech the Cushite (Jer. 39:16-18).

The New Testament develops this theme. One sin of Israel, for which judgement came upon them, was their resistance and opposition to the extension of the grace of God to the Gentiles (1 Thess. 2:14-16). Yet, as Acts constantly shows us, the rejection of the gospel and the persecution of the church is the means God used to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. Nowhere is this more significantly and electrifyingly shown than in the establishment of the church at Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:19-21).

Let me recapitulate and draw some threads together. In our age, the church is both judged and refined. That judgement does not come solely through persecution and opposition, but these are significant components. At a simple level, that divides history into two: a present period, where the judgement falls on the church of God, and a future period, where those used by God as the rods of his anger will themselves be judged.

Since this is a period of God supplying apparent blessing to unbelievers, it sets up a trial of faith. The believer must trust the Word and promise of God, even though it seems that God's blessing is not with him, but with those who deny the gospel. Yet in all this, judgement has not completely eclipsed grace, for God's grace may extend to members of the oppressing group and even to its leading figures, as evidenced by Naaman (by whom 'God had given victory to Aram') and by Saul of Tarsus. Alternatively, the grace of God may turn to the Gentiles.

Since these patterns are not just Old Testament, but also New Testament, we may expect to see similar patterns in our day. Indeed, as with so many other themes, we can argue that the New Testament applies and intensifies this Old Testament theme. Hence we need to ask whether we may see these patterns being expressed in our day.

I believe we can, without at all stretching the evidence. In many parts of the world, the church is going through the refiner's fire of severe persecution. We would have no difficulty in applying the words of 1 Peter to their situation. In other parts of the world there is no active persecution, but the favour of God seems to rest upon the unbelievers, the rejected rather than the elected. The unbelievers have the power, the wealth, the possession of the earth. The world grows by tens and dozens in comparison to the church's ones and twos. The situation of the church under persecution, though it grieves us, is not hard to explain in biblical categories. What about the non-persecuted, though apparently forsaken, church?

First of all, it is dangerous to universalize or oversimplify these patterns, as though persecution is the only possible experience of the church. Note the word of Christ to the church at Philadelphia (Rev. 3:10). It is not that our lack of persecution is because of faithfulness; but we use Scripture against Scripture if we try to make the common experience of persecution the universal experience. (Church history also shows the problems which flow from making persecution a constant mark of the true church, but that is outside our present topic). We should note also that the example cited earlier of the Jehu dynasty shows that God may withhold full judgement for a time out of respect for the faithfulness of former generations. Of course, that is a 'living on borrowed time', as Israel discovered when they refused to hearken to the prophets such as Hosea and Amos who warned them of the judgement to come.

Yet we may see the lack of blessing upon the church as a judgement: an offended Lord has withdrawn his full power from us. The decline of the church in the Western countries and the growth of the church in countries without any strong Christian heritage is the pattern we see from the time of the prophets and in the New Testament. When the professing people of God reject their God and flout his law, the blessing of God goes to the Gentiles. Notice the particular blindness that can come upon the people of God, or the nominal people of God, in that situation. When Ahab met Elijah with the words: 'Is that you, you troubler of Israel?' (1 Kings 18:17), he used very deliberate and significant language, because the troubler of Israel was Achan (Josh. 7:25-26). Ahab blamed Elijah, not himself, for Israel's misery. And the people responded most perversely to Jeremiah's warnings (Jer. 44), saying that their problem was too little rather than too much!

So the church is occasionally told in these days that its faithfulness has alienated the world from it and led to its decline; or that our conservative, 'pharisaic' concern for obedience to God is bringing God's wrath upon us. People can come to believe that their deliverance from judgement lies in what is in reality only killing them!

Thinking About the Future🔗

I have taken this long path to bring us to the point where we may use the Scriptural patterns to think about the future. If we see our present position in these terms, what is the likely outcome? Put another way, how has God acted in the past in analogous situations? Using these examples and patterns, we can put forward several alternative scenarios for the church in the West.

One possibility would follow the dynasty-of-Jehu model. God spared Israel under Jeroboam II, but their subsequent failure to repent resulted in her virtual extinction. The survival of the church in the West, given its unbelief and godlessness, is surprising. The extinction of the church in the West is therefore conceivable. An analogy from church history would be the church's fate in central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa with the rise of Islam. As for the actual mechanism, one could suggest a judgement on the nations of the West in the course of which the church in those countries is virtually extinguished.

A second scenario would be that the time for the church in the West to be refined is approaching. The vehicle would be oppression from the general society, backed by the state. The possible excuses for such persecution are too numerous to conjecture. That might be followed by the oppressors being judged and devastated. I do not see that the church is in such good shape that it would come unscathed through this refining process.

A third possibility would follow the pattern of Psalm 78, where God, in spite of the increasing degeneration of the judges period, chose to establish the kingdom of David. We cannot rule out that possibility for our future, because our God is a very gracious God. Yet it would be presumptuous to suppose that God must act according to that particular model.

If the church should be refined and survive the refining as a purified body (rather than as a remnant that has lost the truth), there is a possible alternate ending. Zechariah 2 contains one of a series of visions concerning the fact that the nations which have scattered Judah are at peace. God's people have suffered judgement at the hand of the Gentiles, but the Gentiles have not been judged in turn. But now in chapter two, the situation is reversed. God returns to be the protection of his people, and the nations are to be judged. Then note 2:11. In response to judgement, the nations are moved to seek the Lord. Thus an alternative future is that the church is persecuted and thus refined; then the nations which are used to inflict the judgement are afflicted and judged, in the course of which, they themselves will seek the Lord. Of course, already during the judgement on the church, the grace of God may gather in Gentiles, just as Naaman and Saul of Tarsus were brought in.

My own strong hunch (and I will not call it any more than that) is that all of these patterns will be represented in some form, and that the out­working of these patterns will become more dramatic as the Day of the Lord approaches. The simultaneous working of several patterns will explain the apparently contradictory biblical pictures of great apostasy and yet great blessing as the end approaches. I would also anticipate a role for Israel, both as persecuting 'Gentiles', and as those brought back to the Lord.

Please note that in all of these pictures, persecution, judgement and violence play a large role. One cannot read Revelation without being re­minded of that. This raises a vital question: what are we doing to prepare the church in the West for what could very well be its future?

On this issue, the evangelical church is acting with unbelievable stupidity. Judgements and their accompaniments in persecution, war and violence, are subjects which people do not want mentioned. People may watch these on television – indeed, they do watch them, to receive the reassuring message that calamity happens to other people, and not to us. But it cannot be spoken about in the church! Can anybody who takes the Bible seriously not believe that we are ripe for judgement? The biblical pattern is that it begins first with the church. Should the storm break, will the evangelical church have the biblical and conceptual tools to understand what has happened? Sadly, some forms of the Charismatic movement have spread the worldly heresy that nothing bad can happen anymore. Yet, as Jeremiah preached the coming judgement with hope, so must we. It is through the judgement on Israel, and then the judgement on the nations, that the church is built. Beyond the judgement lies blessing in some form. Let us prepare ourselves and prepare the church in case a momentary, light affliction is to befall us.

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